What’s in a name? Well, if you’re a celebrity, it can be the difference between fame and having a career in bit roles or playing as an extra. It can be the difference between being a songwriter and being a singer.
Choosing to go by a stage name isn’t a recent development. Tons of famous faces over the years have changed their names in order to be more marketable, less “ethnic,” more suited to the leading man and leading lady roles they so coveted. The name “Maurice Micklewhite” doesn’t exactly sound like a thespian, does it? Probably why he changed his name to Michael Caine. “Judy Garland” rolls off the tongue much better than Frances Gumm, right? Even the iconic Marilyn Monroe was once known as Norma Jean Mortensen.
Stage names offer a celebrity-in-the-making to take on a new persona, someone with more confidence or élan, someone with that X-factor that is so necessary when becoming a star. Whether they choose to go by one-word monikers or something with a little more oomph than their given name, these 20 celebrities not only changed the names given to them on their birth certificates, but explained how they created the title they would become internationally recognized by.
20 Alicia Keys (Born Alicia Augello-Cook)
The name “Alicia Augello-Cook” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so we understand why singer-songwriter and judge on The Voice decided to opt for something a little catchier. Initially, Keys considered the name “Alicia Wild” after perusing the dictionary, but her mother turned it down, saying, “’It sounds like you’re a[n] [exotic dancer].” To appease her mother – and relate back to the career she was pursuing – Keys chose a more musical moniker, explaining, “It’s like piano keys. And it can open so many doors.” We hope she thanked her mom for that one!
19 Bruno Mars (Born Peter Gene Hernandez)
Would “Uptown Funk” really be the same if it had been sung by Peter Gene Hernandez instead of Bruno Mars? We’d say so! In a 2013 interview with GQ, the artist explained that, while his birth name may be Peter, he’s gone by Bruno almost his entire life, receiving the nickname as a toddler because of his resemblance to wrestler Bruno Sammartino.
Mars ended up ditching his last name because, when he was trying to crack his way into the music industry, execs took one look at his last name and suggested he do Latin music, since Enrique Iglesias was so popular. To avoid being pigeonholed, he opted for “Mars” instead.
18 Awkwafina (Born Nora Lum)
As a rapper and an actress (notable recent credits include Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8), Awkwafina chose her stage name when she was still a teen, and it was inspired by a few things: how “awkwardly fine” she is and Neutrogena!
According to Awkwafina (real name: Nora Lum), she “always thought it was funny when brands try to femininze themselves. You know? Like Neutrogena. And also, I’m like really awkward so, you know…and “fina” I’m sure it means “fine” somewhere you know?” Hey, it’s a name that has definitely allowed her to stand out and parlay some of her awkward appeal into goofy characters on the screen!
17 Post Malone (Born Austin Post)
For a dude who regularly wears Crocs, it might not be all that surprising to learn that rapper Post Malone (whose real name is Austin Post) chose a pretty lazy way to pick his stage name that would set him onto the road to success.
While chatting on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Malone said, “I was, like, 14 and I had started, like, getting into producing and rapping and singing over my own stuff. And then I needed a name for my s***** mixtape. So I ran [my real name] through a rap name generator and got Post Malone.” Ah, stars! They’re just like us!
16 Travis Scott (Born Jacques Berman Webster II)
Travis Scott might not sound like much of a stage name, but it’s definitely a lot more marketable than the rapper’s real moniker, which is Jacques Berman Webster II – which sounds more like a French lord than Kylie Jenner’s baby daddy!
The name is an amalgamation of people Scott admires: “Travis” comes from his uncle and “Scott” comes from rapper Kid Cudi, whose real name is Scott Mescudi, whom Scott admires. Calling both men his two “superheroes”, Scott hasn’t given up his legal name entirely: daughter Stormi Webster bears his legal last name.
15 Calvin Harris (Born Adam Richard Wiles)
Another musician’s name that could belong to any Average Joe walking down the street, DJ Calvin Harris kind of chose his stage name for that exact reason.
The star – who was born Adam Richard Wiles – generated confusion when then-girlfriend thanked him by his given name during the iHeart Radio Music Awards. Harris explained his choice later by saying that his first single was more of a soul track and he wanted the name behind it so sound more “racially ambiguous”. “I thought people might not know if I was black or not,” Harris stated. “After that, I was stuck with it.”
14 Dita Von Teese (Born Heather Renee Sweet)
The name “Heather Sweet” sounds appropriate enough for a burlesque dancer, but apparently it wasn’t good enough for Dita Von Teese! The name “Dita” came to the star from German actress Dita Parlo, and initially, it was supposed to be a one-time-use-only kind of deal. However, after she landed the cover of Playboy, the executives insisted the dancer have some last name to go by as well, which led Von Teese to randomly select one out of a phone book – except that name was “Von Treese”! Playboy made the typo that would solidify Von Teese’s showgirl status, which was fortunate, since she ended up liking that version even better!
13 Brie Larson (Born Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers)
“Brie Larson” sounds like a normal enough name for an actress that has moved from comedies to indie film to becoming the next superhero as Captain Marvel – but it isn’t the real name of the Oscar-winning actress!
Larson was only nine years old when she decided to adopt a stage name, because she was sick of people mispronouncing her last name. “Larson” actually came from her favorite American Girl doll, Kirsten Larson, which goes to show where exactly a nine-year-old gets inspiration to change her name. In an interview on The Tonight Show, Larson said at the time, it was like making her doll family.
12 Whoopi Goldberg (Born Caryn Elaine Johnson)
We all know that actress Whoopi Goldberg is a comedian, but even her stage name is the result of some pretty juvenile humor!
Explaining in an interview with The New York Times, Goldberg admitted that she was given the nickname “Whoopee Cushion” because of her habit of breaking wind so often on and off stage, since there was limited time to go to the bathroom. In fact, she first considered the name “Whoopee Cushion” professionally! It was a mother to the rescue again, who thought the moniker was a little too silly, and so “Goldberg” was chosen instead.
11 Katy Perry (Born Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson)
We all go through some pretty trying times during adolescence and young adulthood, but how many of us decide to change our name? According to Katy Perry, that’s just what she needed! In an interview with The Guardian, Perry – who had already put out an album under her birth name, Katy Hudson – created the character of Katy Perry as a form of protection. “It was me going, ‘Okay, I’ve been upset my whole childhood so I am going to show the world that I am something’…I didn’t want to be Katheryn Hudson. I hated that, it was too scary for me, so I decided to me someone else.”
10 Lana Del Ray (Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant)
Like Katy Perry, singer Lana Del Ray also released her first album under her birth name, Lizzy Grant (formally Elizabeth Woolridge Grant). However, it just didn’t feel right to the star, as she explained in an issue of British Vogue.
“I wanted a name I could shape my music towards,” she said. “I was going to Miami quite a lot at the time, speaking a lot of Spanish with my friends from Cuba. ‘Lana Del Ray’ reminded me us of the glamour of the seaside. It sounded gorgeous coming off the tip of the tongue.” It definitely has more of a ring to it than “Lizzy Grant”!
9 Gigi Hadid (Born Jelena Noura Hadid)
Model Gigi Hadid, along with sister Bella, both use their legal last names, but chose to go the nickname route when it came to their first names for career purposes. While Bella’s full name is Isabella Khair Hadid, Gigi’s is Jelena (pronounced Yelena) Noura Hadid.
According to Gigi, the nickname was used by close friends and family, and it was a moniker her mother Yolanda usually went by as a child. By grade school, the pronunciation of Jelena had become confusing, so Gigi opted for her current name on a full-time basis, which has become the famous name the Victoria’s Secret model has built her career upon.
8 Mindy Kaling (Born Vera Mindy Chokalingham)
Technically speaking, actress Mindy Kaling did use her own name, it’s just kind of mixed in with the moniker on her birth certificate! Originally form India, Kaling’s parents wanted to give her a traditional Hindu name, and while “Vera” is the name of an incarnation of a Hindu goddess, it wasn’t to the comedian’s liking.
Choosing instead to go by her middle name, Mindy, (which was what she was called around the house), Kaling simply shortened her last name from “Chokalingham” to just “Kaling” in order to make it as an actress.
7 The Weeknd (Born Abel Makkonen Tesfaye)
In what seems like a pretty basic explanation, artist The Weeknd revealed that his stage name came from a time when he dropped out of high school…and went away with friends one weekend. Yes, really.
One weekend, when he was 17, The Weeknd convinced his friend to drop out of school with him and the two picked up their mattresses, put them in another friend’s van, and left home for good. The Weeknd admitted to hating his own name, Abel Tesfaye, and so tried out “The Weeknd” as a stage name, dropping the “e” because there was another Canadian band of the same name.
6 Iggy Azalea (Born Amethyst Amelia Kelly)
With a name like Amethyst Amelia Kelly, we can’t really blame rapper Iggy Azalea for choosing something totally different when she wanted to break into the music industry, but how did she come up with something as radically different as “Iggy Azalea”?
You know that old game where you’d pick the name of your first pet and the name of your street name? That’s how.
“Iggy” came from her dog, who was named for Iggy Pop. Azalea wore a nameplate necklace with “Iggy” on it, leading people to believe it was her own name. “Azalea” came from the street her mother lived on, after insistence from her grandfather, who disapproved of one-name stage names!
5 Halsey (Born Ashley Nicolette Frangipane)
When it comes to stage names, most people think that Halsey came up with hers as an anagram for her first name, Ashley. While this is true, it’s not the whole story.
“Halsey” actually comes from Halsey Street in Brooklyn, New York, where the singer spent a lot of time as a teenager, since her then-boyfriend lived there. “That’s where I first started writing music and where I started to feel like I was part of something bigger than my town in the middle of nowhere New Jersey,” the singer explained. “Halsey is like a manifestation of all the exaggerated parts of me, so it’s like an alter ego.”
4 Jamie Foxx (Born Eric Marlon Bishop)
Jamie Foxx was originally born Eric Marlon Bishop, but it wasn’t necessarily because he needed a catchier name that he chose to change his moniker. Really, it was all about being practical!
While working as a struggling stand-up comedian, Foxx noticed that female comedians were usually called upon to do their acts first, before their male counterparts. So, seeing that he needed to get more stage time in order to get his big break, Foxx began to go by the unisex “Jamie”, in the hopes that he might end up somewhere in the middle of the list. “Foxx” was chosen in tribute to Redd Foxx, who also picked his own name!
3 Lorde (Born Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor)
With a name that long, we can’t blame Lorde for choosing something totally different – and much, much shorter!
While the singer prefers being called “Ella”, she did pick “Lorde” for when she’s on the stage, explaining that she wanted something “really strong and had this grandeur to it.” Chosen when she was 16, Lorde revealed that the name was a pretty quick decision that was partly based on her interest in “nobility, aristocracy”. (Her first hit, after all, was “Royals”.) Adding an ‘e’ to feminize it, and we have the single-name moniker for the New Zealand-born star.
2 Lady Gaga (Born Stefani Germanotta)
Depending on whom you ask, the origin of Lady Gaga’s name is a contentious one. According to the woman herself, the name was partially created by producer Rob Fusari, who thought her vocal style was similar to that of Queen’s “Radio GaGa”. The name was part of a reinvention for the singer/actress, who said she was living in this “trash glitter environment”, and so the name was apt.
Fusari tells a different story, saying he entered Lady Gaga into his phone as “Radio GaGa” but “Radio” autocorrected to “Lady”. Fusari filed a lawsuit against the star in 2010, but it was dropped, so we don’t know the true story!
1 Cardi B (Born Belcalis Almanzar)
A woman who’s not afraid to party, Cardi B originally began going by Bacardi, like the famous rum brand, due to the fact that her sister is named Hennessey, like the preferred gin label! She began going by “Bacardi” but, when she began to make more of a name for herself, was advised to change it due to possible legal ramifications. The rapper switched it up to be “Cardi B”, telling talk show host Wendy Williams, “The ‘B’ stands for whatever, depending on the day…’beautiful’ or ‘bully’. Considering the star is no stranger to public feuds and fistfights, we might suggest the latter!
References: Harper's Bazaar, People. Style Caster, Mental Floss